Descent by Peter Tonningsen
It would be impractical to discuss this work by Peter Tonningsen without considering it as a body of work, rather than as individual images. This portfolio is both conceptual and an incredibly rich, visually graphic presentation. To produce each piece, he scanned pages from biologists' field notes to use as a background and then placed an image of one of the biological specimens from the same archive to make these photographic montages. Each piece in the portfolio is a unique montage created using essentially this same formula. In some cases, the bird image was made by simply scanning the specimen without using a camera. Those that were too large for the flatbed scanner were photographed. The bird image was then isolated in a Photoshop transparency layer and then combined with the background. In either case, we are presented with incredible detail, wonderful coloration, and a visual feast that harkens back to those great 19th century taxonomic publications like those of Audubon and others.
There are at least two aspects of this work that fascinated me: the unified nature of the series of prints, and the use of such rich visual backgrounds that so much graphic presence.
Elsewhere, I've talked about the value of structure in helping us through the production aspects of a photographic project. This portfolio is a classic example. Tonningsen created this project structure (combining backgrounds and bird images) and then let his creative vision run free within the structure. This not only creates a large body of work, but one that allows considerable freedom within the structure. Note, for example, the three images in the example above: a single bird with wings extended, three birds of the same species, single bird with wings folded. There are numerous other possibilities which, when combined with the varieties of backgrounds, give him a functionally limitless number of combinations — that is to say he will push the limits of viewer fatigue long before he runs out of creative combinations. That is a productive and useful structure.
As is somewhat obvious, every photograph we make needs a background. In most cases, the background is provided for us by nature — distant horizons, cloudy skies, etc. In still life photography, this necessity for backgrounds is a much more difficult problem to solve. We need to make a background and in that sense the background becomes as much a part of the picture as the subject. The background can either be neutral or add something to the composition. It would be easy to imagine this project with a simple white background, a simple black background, or maybe even some gradation with a smooth transition from one color to another. All these might work, but they may be somewhat simplistic. Worse, they wouldn't add anything to the composition. By choosing these biological field notes as the background for these images, Tonningsen has added not simply a visual delineation between subject and background, but added to the composition both graphically and with content. On close inspection, we can read the field notes. They also create their own graphic contribution of line, form, and shape — a form of compositional movement that complements the still bird figures.
All in all, this is a beautifully conceived and expertly executed project that demonstrates the potential for the world of photography and the world of graphic design to complement each other in a unified project.
The portfolio can be seen in its entirety in our back issues — print (while still available) and our PDFs for computer, iPad, Android, and other devices. Plus, bonus audio commentary about this image is available to full-access members of LensWork Online.
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